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From the September, 2005
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Stem Sell Job by Gilbert Meilaender

Stem Sell Job

Gilbert Meilaender on Why The Christian Century Is Wrong About “Spare” Embryos

More than any other strand of Christian denominational existence in America, mainline Protestant churches have sought to shape public life. The will to do that still remains, though the energy may be diminishing. But more important than either the will or the energy is the question of what wisdom, if any, these churches have to offer us on controverted issues in our public life. The answer to that question can sometimes be rather disappointing, and I offer here a brief example.

In its June 28, 2005 issue, The Christian Century ran a (rather brisk) editorial, “Lives of the embryo,” in which it commented on the public debate about whether it would be right to destroy (so-called) spare embryos in order to procure stem-cell lines for scientific research. President Bush, the editorial suggested, “has chosen an odd place to draw a line against stem cell research.”

The editorial provides both an occasion to examine some of the claims made by those who advocate such use of spare embryos and an opportunity to ponder one way in which this formerly influential strand of Protestant tradition would shape our public life.

Attentive Skepticism

Four claims, in particular, merit both attention and a good dose of skepticism:

(1) “There is little moral hazard in extracting stem cells from embryos that are going to be either destroyed or frozen indefinitely. Nothing is lost that would not be lost anyway, and something of enormous benefit may be gained.”

Perhaps, just to help awaken us from our dogmatic slumbers, we may juxtapose this claim with a passage from Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. Discussing the way in which doctors at Auschwitz were “hungry for surgical experience,” he writes:

In the absence of ethical restraint, one could arrange exactly the kind of surgical experience one sought, on exactly the appropriate kinds of ‘cases’ at exactly the time one wanted. If one felt Hippocratic twinges of conscience, one could usually reassure oneself that, since all of these people were condemned to death in any case, one was not really harming them.

The context is different, but the form of reasoning should sound familiar, and this is morally hazardous company to keep. Christians—so attuned to the language of compassion that they may become deaf to other aspects of moral language—need regularly to remind themselves that “harm” is not the only important moral consideration. It is quite possible to “wrong” one whom we do not harm. With that in mind, perhaps we should be less hasty than the Century’s editorial to assume that there is no “moral hazard” in using and destroying even “spare” embryos.

Why does the fact that these embryos are condemned (by our decision) to die make them available for our use? True, they are almost surely destined to die. What follows? Not that we should feel free to use them for our purposes, but, rather, that, as Hans Jonas once argued with respect to the terminally ill, we should spare them “the gratuitousness of service to an unrelated cause.” It is one thing for us to acquiesce in the death of these embryos; it is quite another for us to embrace their death as our aim, to seize upon it as an advantageous opportunity to use them yet again for our purposes.

It is we, after all, who have condemned them to die. We cannot pretend that they simply are dying—as if that were just a natural fact, independent of our will and choice. First we decide that they are to die. Then we say that, since they’re destined to die anyway, we may as well gain some benefit from their dying. Are we quite certain that such reasoning is entirely free of “moral hazard” or that this is the best wisdom we Christians have to offer our fellow citizens?

An Odd Place

(2) “[T]he president and his supporters have, perhaps unwittingly, called into question the practice of IVF.”

And just why should it be the task of Christians to baptize the current practice of in vitro fertilization in this country? It is very strange that Christians should be exceedingly alert to the dangers of technological control and mastery in some realms of life, yet so uncritically approving here.

Why should we not raise questions about the routine production of more embryos than will be implanted, or about the selection of certain embryos (and selection against others) when deciding which to implant? Should Christians simply acquiesce in the view that reproduction is a private project aimed at producing a child “of one’s own,” and, increasingly, a child of a certain (desired) sort? One wonders what we will think, then, when we bring these children of “our own” for baptism and are asked to relinquish them.

(3) “Using embryos that were produced through IVF with the intent of creating new life, but which now are never going to be implanted in a womb, strikes us as a reasonable option for advancing knowledge of stem cells.”

Perhaps, on the contrary, the fact that these are “spare” embryos remaining after infertility treatment may actually have quite different implications for the moral argument. These embryos have already been used once in the service of someone else’s (reproductive) project. Perhaps even, let us hypothetically grant, they have been justly used in that project. At least it can be said that the IVF project uses embryos in ways that are oriented toward their natural end in reproduction.

But even granting the hypothesis that these embryos have been justly used in service of someone else’s reproductive project—that is, in an attempt to satisfy the desires of others—is being used once not enough? Why, if they are no longer needed or wanted for reproductive purposes, should we suppose that they are still available for our use, still a handy resource for other purposes entirely unrelated to their well-being or their natural end?

(4) “Using embryos that were produced through IVF . . . , but which now are never going to be implanted in a womb, . . . is clearly preferable to one of the major alternatives at hand: creating embryos for the sole purpose of using them in research.”

One must be very naive indeed—more naive than Christians ought to be—to suppose that these are, in our current policy debate, genuine “alternatives.”

Using “spare” embryos is clearly nothing more than a first step. Should we approve that, we will soon be told that to advance still further requires that we create embryos for use in research. And anyone who has been paying any attention at all to the researchers will know that their preferred way of producing those embryos will be by cloning them—so as to produce precisely the disease models desired for study.

All in all, I am not inclined to say that “[t]he president has chosen an odd place to draw a line against stem cell research.” I am far more inclined to say that the Century has chosen an odd place—indeed, an inherently unworkable and morally hazardous place—to stake a claim in favor of this research.


Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. His books include Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person (Encounter Books) and Should We Live Forever?: The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Eerdmans). He is a Lutheran.

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“Stem Sell Job” first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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